President Obama Names UC Riverside Seismologist a Top Young Scientist

Elizabeth Cochran’s idea turned hundreds of laptops into round-the-clock earthquake monitors

Elizabeth Cochran (center) accepts the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers on Friday in Washington, alongside the president’s science and technology adviser, Dr. John P. Holdren, and Dr. Joan Ferrini-Mundy, assistant director for education and human resources at the National Science Foundation. Photo credit: NASA/Paul E. Alers.

RIVERSIDE, Calif.—President Barack Obama has announced that Elizabeth Cochran, an adjunct assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside, will receive the United States government’s highest honor for scientists and engineers in the early stages of their independent research careers—the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). Cochran is one of only 94 women and men who will receive the honor.

The PECASE awards embody the high priority the Administration places on producing outstanding scientists and engineers to advance the nation’s goals and contribute to all sectors of the economy.

Cochran, who joined the US Geological Survey in June 2011, received the honor for “developing a novel sensor technique to explore earthquake rupture processes and for engaging citizen scientists, through K-12 and public outreach in Southern California.”

Only the second researcher in UC Riverside history to receive the PECASE award, Cochran was one of 21 nominees presented by the National Science Foundation for the most recent round of awards.

“I am honored to receive the PECASE award for my work that emphasizes understanding earthquake risk while involving the public in collecting seismic data,” Cochran said. “I am hopeful that this recognition will encourage more people to become citizen scientists and contribute valuable data to support a range of scientific fields, including seismology.”

The awards, established by President Clinton in February 1996, are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. Awardees are selected on the basis of two criteria: pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and a commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education or community outreach.

“It is inspiring to see the innovative work being done by these scientists and engineers as they ramp up their careers—careers that I know will be not only personally rewarding but also invaluable to the nation,” President Obama said. “That so many of them are also devoting time to mentoring and other forms of community service speaks volumes about their potential for leadership, not only as scientists but as model citizens.”

Elizabeth Cochran is an adjunct assistant professor at UC Riverside. In June 2011, she joined the US. Geological Survey. Photo credit: L. Duka.

It was in 2006 that Cochran came up with a simple idea for monitoring earthquakes—an idea that also has the potential to save lives in case an earthquake strikes. The research project gained momentum when Cochran was an assistant professor at UCR.

The project, called “Quake-Catcher Network,” uses the public’s help in monitoring earthquakes. Small sensors inside laptops or connected to desktops installed in homes, schools and offices create a network of seismic sensors designed to take a dense set of measurements that can be used to study earthquakes in greater detail.

Anyone with a personal computer can participate in the experiment using free software that Cochran and her colleagues developed. Participants can start sending seismic data to the project either using a supported laptop, which has the necessary sensor already built in, or by attaching a small sensor via USB port to their desktop computer. The collaborative project led by Cochran and Jesse Lawrence from Stanford University is starting a new initiative to install 6000 external sensors in seismically active areas of the United States, including Southern California. More information can be found on the project website:

Cochran will travel to Washington, DC, Oct. 13-14, to receive the award and will attend three ceremonies cumulating with a recognition ceremony at the White House with President Obama.

Archived under: Inside UCR, Science/Technology, , , , , ,

Top of Page